A Kenyan living in the US is cashing in from Kenya’s athletics prowess by designing sports safari packages which blends the traditional beach and bush safari with a running experience in the Rift Valley highlands.
Wilson Kiriungi, based in Boston, Massachusetts, is the brain behind Run with Kenyans – a company he founded in 2011 to bring both professional and recreational runners to Kenya for a sporty safari.
The idea to develop athletics safari packages was born out of Mr Kiriungi’s experience abroad where he noticed that many Americans regarded Kenya as the ‘Mecca of long distance running’ and cherished an opportunity to learn the secrets of its athletes.
As a resident of Boston, the Kenyan entrepreneur had watched his country mates take multiple gold medals in the Boston Marathon — and the near fanatical following Kenya enjoyed in what is billed as the world biggest major race.
“My interactions with the Boston Marathon fans showed that most of the diehard fans were willing to spend to follow their champions who were mostly Kenyans,” said the 35-year-old entrepreneur told the Business Daily.
“Running is the only sport where you mix the champions and fans in a truly participatory way, providing a great experience for both,” said the man who emigrated to the US in 2001.
Kenyan athletes have won seven out of the last 10 Boston Marathon races, offering a perfect backdrop for Mr Kiriungi to recruit running enthusiasts to make holiday trip to what is dubbed a ‘pilgrimage visit’ to the cradle land of long distance running.
Mr Kiriungi went on to organise his first running safari in 2012, bringing to Kenya a group of 25 tourists to experience the athletics heritage of East Africa’s biggest sporting holiday destination.
He also had another group last year and plans to bring about 40 holidaymakers for a safari to Kenya this year.
The 10-day marathon safari costs $3,600 (Sh306,000) and participants are taken through a comprehensive programme that involves a visit to an athletics training camp, homestay with local athletes and safari tour to Kenya’s game parks and reserves.
The guests are usually taken to the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten — arguably the home to Kenyan athletics champions — where they get to practise side by side with seasoned athletes who hold world records and major titles.
“There is a mystery as to why Kenyans are great on the track. The tour also provides insights on winning athletes. Some say it’s due to the barefoot running others say it’s the diet,” says Mr Kiriungi.
During their stay at the training centre, the holidaymakers get to participate in morning jogs and sample the spectacular scenery.
The homestay sessions bring the visiting athletes face to face with what Kenyan runners eat, drink as well as a peek preview into their personal lifestyles and what makes them tick.
Other activities include visiting St Patrick’s Iten wall of fame — which lists the many athletics heroes produced by the school as well as workshops on the history and achievements.
“The running guides at the camp were very inclusive and always willing to organise runs for us at whatever speed or distance we wanted so that was perfect, not to mention help in the gym if needed,” said Eloise du Luart, a British athlete who participated in the 2012 running safari.
“I had a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the Kenyan London Olympians which was truly inspirational and more than I could have asked for. Also it was amazing how on morning runs you would see everyone from world record holders to Olympic champions.”
The 22-year-old Ms Luart, a student at University of Warwick, went on to win gold at the 2013 ITU World Sprint Duathlon in Ottawa, Canada. Matt Roberts, an American national, was also part of the 2012 running safari and kept a blog of his experiences in Kenya.
“On Sunday morning I ran the Sotoko Half Marathon in Nairobi! I do love to brag about the running don’t I? Forgive me. It was hard. Hilly, hot, and high-altitude!” said Mr Roberts after the race.
“So many tools have been uncovered here in Olorgesailie that it is believed to be a ‘factory’ of sorts, where our ancestors manufactured their tools. Can’t wait to teach about this in September!” said Mr Roberts, a teacher in the US, after visiting the prehistoric site.
Run with Kenyans has also developed special packages for tourist who are already in Kenya and would like to infuse aspects of athletics in their holiday.
The firm has engaged safari companies and hotels to organise short term running excursions for vacationers already in the country.
A one-day running excursion costs between $50 and $90 (Sh4,520-Sh7,650) and the package includes a morning jog with seasoned runners, light training sessions and tête-à-tête with Kenyan marathoners.
Mr Kiriungi also hosts trade and cultural events during the Boston and New York marathons with agencies such as Brand Kenya, Kenya Tourist Board, Kenya Wildlife Service, Tea Board of Kenya and Coffee Board of Kenya to promote his motherland.
In 2012 and last year, Run with Kenyans had an exhibition tent at the Boston Marathon where it rallied tourists to visit Kenya, promoted key exports such as tea and coffee and provided an information centre for those wishing to come for holiday to Kenya.
Run with Kenyans also holds the annual Dinner with Champions event, where elite Boston Marathon runners are hosted for a pre-marathon fun event where locals get a chance to meet the athletics stars up close and candid.
The event will also be held this year, on Saturday April 19 ahead of the race day on Monday the 21 and the chief guest will be Jean Kamau, Kenya’s Charge d’Affaires in Washington.
Mr Kiriungi has developed a relationship with renowned athletes such as Paul Tergat, Pamela Jelimo, Robert Mwafrika Cheruiyot, Patrick Makau and current marathon World Record holder Wilson Kipsang who are on call to run with visiting holidaymakers.
For example, Run with Kenyans was able to rope in Johnson & Johnson executives during their annual general meeting in Nairobi last year for a running safari with a Kenyan elite athlete.
“You can’t be a runner and not have a running safari to Kenya on your bucket list,” is Mr Kiriungi’s parting shot.
-BUSINESS DAILY AFRICA